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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Civilian Deaths in Airstrikes Erode NATO Credibility

Balkans: Nine people are killed in bridge attack; another person dies after convoy of journalists is hit. Allies call span a military target, but Yugoslavia claims citizens are the focus.

May 31, 1999|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Low-flying NATO bombers destroyed a bridge between two Serbian river towns Sunday, toppling cars into the water and killing at least nine civilians in a midday strike near a crowded riverfront market, witnesses said.

The attack left six people missing in the Velika Morava River and 28 injured, officials said. Some of the victims had rushed onto the span to help people wounded by the initial strike when two more bombs hit seven minutes later, townspeople told reporters at the scene in Varvarin, 90 miles south of here.

A later airstrike wounded two European journalists and killed a driver in their convoy in Kosovo--the Serbian province where NATO is trying to halt a brutal government crackdown on ethnic Albanian civilians. Serbia is Yugoslavia's main republic.

Scenes of the wrecked bridge on television here and around the world dealt a new blow to NATO's credibility as Western leaders were pressing to isolate Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from his people.

The Yugoslav government, which has been trying to rally public support for Milosevic since his indictment last week by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, seized on the apparent NATO blunder as evidence that the Western alliance's nearly 10-week-old air assault is aimed at ordinary civilians, not just their leader.

"NATO criminals picked a market day to carry out their attack," said the newscaster on state TV, noting that Varvarin's outdoor produce market stretches along the river near one end of the two-lane bridge.

In acknowledging that allied planes had attacked the bridge, NATO officials in Brussels said it was a legitimate target. The alliance has acknowledged killing civilians in at least 11 previous errant attacks but insists that all such casualties are unintentional. Yugoslav authorities say more than 240 civilians have died in those attacks.

Varvarin, a town of 5,000 people, is about 50 miles north of Kosovo. NATO says it has been bombing highways and bridges in the area to cut Yugoslav army supply lines into the province--the scene of 15 months of guerrilla war between the government and ethnic Albanian separatists.

"If it is a military target, why did they not hit it at night?" Dragoljub Stanojevic, the school principal in Varvarin, asked reporters at the scene as divers searched for victims.

Stanojevic said one of his former students, Sanja Milenkovic, 17, was wounded by the first bomb while she was walking across the bridge and died en route to a hospital.

Hundreds of people were in the market area at the time of the bombing, and many of them had just left Pentecost Sunday services at nearby St. George's Serbian Orthodox Church, witnesses said. Several cars and pedestrians were on the bridge--traveling between Varvarin and Cicevac--when it was first hit at 12:53 p.m., they said.

Milivoje Ciric, a priest at the church, was among those killed by the follow-up blasts. Witnesses said he had rushed to the bridge to help the wounded. His decapitated body lay in the town morgue with those of six other men killed by the blast and that of a woman who drowned.

The bombs, launched by planes visible from the ground, sent about three-fourths of the bridge's metal structure crashing into the river and shattered windows in the church, a hotel, a row of riverside cottages and Varvarin's town hall.

Sunday's bombing signaled an increase in daylight raids as NATO pressed its campaign to force Milosevic's estimated 40,000 troops from Kosovo. A series of detonations shook Belgrade, the capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia, at midmorning Sunday as NATO planes struck at nearby military targets.

Bombing on the 68th day of NATO's air war also destroyed 10 houses in the Serbian town of Vranje, killing a 60-year-old man and wounding 30 other people, according to the official Yugoslav news agency, Tanjug, which reported six civilians killed by bombing Saturday.

In Kosovo, Tanjug said a two-car convoy of journalists "came under NATO fire" Sunday afternoon on a road about six miles outside Prizren.

A 28-year-old Serb driving one of the cars was killed, it said, and two journalists were wounded. One was identified as Eve-Ann Prentice of the Times of London, and the other was identified only as a reporter for Corriere della Sera of Milan, Italy. A French writer, Daniel Schiffer, also was wounded, the report said.

Early today, there were unconfirmed reports that NATO warplanes struck a sanatorium in Surdulica in southeastern Serbia, killing at least 10 people, the official Radio Serbia network said.

An errant NATO missile killed at least 20 civilians in the town in late April.

NATO is demanding deployment of an alliance-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo to ensure the safe return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian civilians purged from the province this spring.

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